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2021 Golden Ear Awards | Neil Gader

2021 Golden Ear Awards | Neil Gader

MBL 126/MBL 120 Loudspeakers

$12,900 ($1350, stands); $21,400 ($1630, stands) 

I didn’t know just how much I’d missed the musicality, transparency, and astounding spatiality of the brilliant MBL 120 until my memory was jogged by listening to its equally startling and extraordinary little sister, the MBL 126, now in my review queue. While closely related in many respects, the beefier MBL 120 sports greater bass output, extension, and dynamic range, thanks to its larger-diameter side-firing woofers. But beyond that there are more similarities than differences to these three-way, omnidirectional, stand-mount Radialstrahlers. The sonics they offer are characterized by sweeping ambience retrieval, 3-D-like immersion, and seamless top-to-bottom response. As only an omni can, they approach the complex relationship between imaging, soundstaging, and envelopment in ways direct-radiating transducers often only hint at, but rarely attain. Orchestral music assumes a naturalism and spine-tingling immediacy akin to the real thing. Low-level resolution and sensitivity to dynamic gradients abound. But it’s the superb, carbon-fiber, radial mid and tweeter drivers that spin the sonic silk—both grainless, airy, and harmonious. Crafted and finished with precision and taste, and inseparable in so many sonic respects, these Golden Ear prospects ran in a virtual dead-heat. Take your pick, but either way MBL’s 126 and 120 deserve to share this award.

Pass Labs XP-12

Pass Labs XP-12 Preamplifier

$5800

Pass Labs’ entry-level linestage preamp has been a constant presence in my system for years. As a classic, old-school, line-level preamp, it forgoes the dual-chassis extravagance of Pass’ uptown siblings. With its all-business looks, certainly no one is going to accuse it (or you) of an ostentatious display of gilded consumerism. Sonically…well, that’s another matter altogether. There’s serious musical intent here. Anchored by the precision of Wayne Colburn’s single-stage electronic volume control adapted from the Xs line, the XP-12 produces an almost eerie sense of musical spontaneity and immediacy. It mines musical detail down to the softest levels. There’s harmonic bloom across the spectrum, most notably an infusion of resonance and decay cues around strings and winds. Paired with active loudspeakers like my own ATC SCM50s, this combination produces stunning orchestral layering and complex three-dimensional soundspace vistas. Solo piano brought forth heretofore unheard shifts in the micro-dynamics from the player’s keyboard touch, and rich soundboard reverberations. Laden with performance that’s perilously close to the industry’s best, XP-12 is an exceptional value.

Elac Navis ARB51 Active Loudspeaker

$2299

I make no apologies for my fondness for active loudspeakers. Guilty as charged. When well executed, as the Elac Navis most certainly is, the entire bundle of internals—amps, crossovers, and transducers—have been optimized to work with one another in a way that passive designs struggle to match, at least until prices reach into the fat five-figure range. Elac’s tri-amplified, three-way compact is not only beautifully finished, but it also establishes an uncommonly rich, full-bodied voice and projects a warm, cozy aura throughout the midrange. With its concentrically mounted midrange/soft-dome tweeter and a 5″ woofer, inter-driver coherence is excellent and fully integrated. The Elac conveys a weighty and dynamic “bottom-up” sound that suggests a speaker that not only doesn’t need coddling but actually dares you to crank it up. A hallmark of active bass is the way its steely grip hangs onto rhythm tracks and orchestral percussion, like kettle drums or organ pedal points. Vocal image scale is a particular stand-out; with your eyes closed, it suggests a loudspeaker that is considerably larger than its 13″ height. Again, active forces at work. Further, fans of choral music will revel in the clarity and individuation of massed voices. One of the rare small compacts where you don’t have to scale back expectations. 

Tags: GOLDEN EAR AWARDS LOUDSPEAKER PREAMPLIFIER STAND-MOUNT

By Neil Gader

My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.

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